Lakers Report Cards: Derek Fisher
Even through his offensive shortcomings, Lakers guard Derek Fisher quieted those sentiments most seasons with clutch playoff performances. Even through his increased age and declining speed, Fisher made up for it with intangible leadership and his assistance to team chemistry. And even through the constant questioning of Fisher's overall value, notable figures such as Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson unequivocally appreciated Fisher's presence. Those qualities didn't suddenly evaporate, but they hardly made up for the shortcomings of Fisher's 2010-2011 season. Nor did they make as much of a difference as they had in past seasons.
It showed in Fisher's playoff performances. He may have exceeded his regular-season average, going from 6.8 points per game on 38.9% shooting to 9.3 points on 52.6% shooting in the playoffs, but his numbers in the Lakers' Western Conference semifinals sweep by Dallas dropped to 6.5 points per game on 31% shooting. He offered no late-game clutch play in the postseason, an obvious missing piece considering Bryant's sudden ineffectiveness late in the game and Pau Gasol's complete disappearing act.
It showed in Fisher's defensive effort. Of course, the 36-year-old Fisher will struggle keeping up with quick guards on screen-and-rolls, just as every player struggles doing so in the NBA. But his continuous fighting through picks, ability to get deflections and strength in organizing the team's defense didn't translate to a unit that continuously blamed each other on missed assignments, sagged on rotations and rarely helped each other.
And it showed in Fisher's standing as a leader. Fisher's teammates may respect him for his continued efforts in providing a locker-room presence, aiding Bryant's leadership role and delivering Jackson's team message, but their unwillingness to follow the lead of Jackson, Bryant and Fisher show that his job proved more difficult for him this season than in years past.
Even so, don't expect Fisher to consider hanging up his laces with two years, including a player option, remaining on his contract.
"No," Fisher said. "That's not even a thought. I don't really wake up and think about my age or not playing again. I don't view that as a possibility right now. I'm aware of the realities of this team as far as the coaching change and whatever personnel decisions are made as far as Mitch and ownership and management. This is too fun to just walk away from, as disappointing as this finish is. There's too many great things to experience. Being an NBA basketball player is a great opportunity and one I want to continue to enjoy."
I've stated strongly that Fisher has much value to the Lakers while acknowledging his struggles, and I'm not going to waver on that. But his diminished presence this season speaks to a few of Fisher's own shortcomings; more importantly, it says something about the rest of his teammates not valuing his insight.
For a while, the Lakers could absorb Fisher's weaknesses. But those weaknesses didn't point to areas most fans would presume. As much as Fisher receives criticism for his defensive speed, he actually deserves the most scrutiny for his shot selection. As ESPN Los Angeles' Brian Kamenetzky recently pointed out, Fisher ranked pretty poorly among the 65 league's point guards in several categories, including a 55th ranking in effective field goal percentage (48.6%), 60th in player efficiency rating (8.94), and despite a jump in stats from the past two seasons, ranked among one of worst in finishing at the rim off the dribble (49.3%).
But the Lakers were able to absorb that because Bryant usually carried the heavier offensive load, the Lakers boasted a tremendous size advantage and Fisher could still knock down late-game baskets whenever the opportunity proved warranted. The Lakers displayed those qualities at certain points throughout the regular season, but they weren't as reliable in the 2010-2011 campaign. In most cases during the playoffs, they were non-existent, with the exception of Andrew Bynum's emergence. The fact that Fisher actually increased his minutes from 27.2 last season to 28 this season shows that Steve Blake proved to be a disappointment and that the surrounding cast around Fisher no longer proved as dependable.
Fisher still deserves credit for setting an example with his work ethic; he appeared in all 82 regular-season games for the fourth consecutive season with the Lakers and for the eighth time in the past nine overall. He also showed a determination to compensate for his aforementioned weaknesses with grit: setting a team-first mentality by drawing charges, deflecting passes and helping out on defense. Fisher should be lauded for his role in advocating calls for teammates, publicly and privately supporting them during adverse moments and constantly weighing when to provide positive reinforcement and constructive criticism. And he often warned the team about looming dangers, such as how an underachieving postseason could yield to lots of offseason change, how losing in embarrassing fashion in a closeout game to Dallas would anger the organization and fans, and that they should never take nights off.
But based on the Lakers' on-court play and Bynum's revelation that the team still had "trust issues," Fisher's example and speeches fell on deaf ears. That doesn't mean Fisher's value suddenly becomes meaningless. But with Father Time catching up with Fisher, he'll have to find even more ways to adapt his leadership role and on-court presence so that it's more effective.
"There's not a question on whether I'm coming back or not," Fisher said. "You guys like to ask that question. But I keep giving you the same answer until I'm done. There isn't anything tangible that I measure my success by that tells me today is the day I'm not supposed to be playing basketball. I'm not even close to that. Every bit of me is excited and looking forward to the future. Great things are born out of defeat, adversity and struggle. For me individually and a lot of our guys, after the pain somewhat starts to wear off, that's how we're going to start to look at this thing as an opportunity to come back better and stronger than we ever were."
-- Mark Medina
Email the Lakers blog at firstname.lastname@example.org
Top photo: Lakers point guard Derek Fisher goes for a reverse layup in front of Hornets center Emeka Okafor in Game 4 of the Lakers-New Orleans first-round series. Credit: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press
Bottom photo: Fisher fouls Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook in a regular season game. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times